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Rated: E · Review · Mystery · #1616891
Reprint from LJ: A lighthearted look at pitfalls common to the historical mystery genre.
The current audiobook is Jane and the Stillroom Maid, one of the series by Stephanie Barron and read by Kate Reading, and it comes highly recommended indeed.

I'm not ordinarily a huge fan of novelists that use real historical figures. Even if the author is skilled enough - which is very skilled indeed - to incorporate fact into fiction without coming off as annoyingly arch, their affection inevitably starts to come off as blatant hero-worship, what I believe is known these days as a Canon Sue. (As happens to Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding series after awhile; although the first three or four, before Jeremy becomes fairly convinced that his boss is God or the closest earthly equivalent, are still very readable.)

Barron's Jane Austen pastiches, though, have managed to hold off the pitfalls admirably thus far - given her subject, even extraordinarily. Credit is due to any author who can sketch out a star-crossed romance between Austen and an aristocratic secret agent without giving the reader cause to believe the lady herself would laugh it out of court.

There's a general air of easy respect here that's very likeable; Barron is clearly neither a dry scholar nor a book-club cuddler. If her pen can never be as fine as the original's it is nevertheless imbued with a warm understanding and appreciation of who her subject really was, not what she - or, for instance, the producers of Becoming Jane - would like her to be. From there it's a short step to making the reader believe in just how much fun the real Jane, trapped as she generally was in her middle-class family circle, would be having as an amateur detective. Revelling in the chance to use her formidable powers to the full.

Even so, she never seems to be moving out of her ordinary sphere - off her two inches of ivory, you might say. Thus these are period novels that happen to feature murders, not Historical Mysteries. (That people kill and are killed is not in question in this particular era, so what you'd think would be a wild case of Jessica Fletcher Syndrome is actually largely avoided.)

The methods Jane uses to dissect 'real' motives are convincingly reminiscent of the ones she would later employ in her novels. Physical action is kept to a minimum; clues are largely found in violations of etiquette, and unravelled within that same framework. The temptation to give her an admiring young sidekick to 'translate' her greatness to the reader, a la the Fielding books, is mercifully avoided - luckily, the real-life Austen family was large and flamboyant enough for an entire series of adventures.

...Yeah, that all sounds obvious, until you start reading Karen Harper's Elizabeth I series - which very quickly devolve into standard 'tough chick' mysteries that just happen to involve one of the most ferociously intelligent and arrogant female monarchs in history. That Elizabeth would take a personal interest in crimes close to the throne is plausible enough that it's been the subject of dozens of similar novels...that she'd bother badinaging with a bunch of romance-novel-reject Scoobies in the process is not. Still, the Tudor era was never short of outrageous melodrama, and it all might have been rousing good fun enough - except...
Well, it's kind of funny that Harper never picked up on a crucial objection of Elizabeth's in re: her supposed secret love life: she was under scrutiny literally all the time. Even the most historically clueless of readers can figure that might also hinder racing around the countryside in disguise spying on bad guys Nancy Drew-style (the first few books do make a point of a double, but it all gets real sloppy real fast).

Anyway, back to Jane the sardonic society sleuth. Barron is guilty of a bit too much byplay as 'editor', commenting on the over-obvious 'inspirations' behind the Austen canon; I'm not sure why implications of this type always bother me this much, but they do. Perhaps it's something to do with mis-appropriation of genius, a lack of respect that becomes even more glaring given the surrounding care. While the game of picking up on obscure epigrams can be flattering for both author and reader...I'm very sure Austen was at least capable of writing her own dialogue, thanks much all the same.

On a related tangent, there's the constant danger when using real people to flesh out your mystery (one that Harper's series also noticeably fails to avoid, kind of the way James Dean noticeably failed to avoid that other car) of ending up with a case in which all but a noticeable few of the suspects have real-life alibis in the form of, y'know, never having been convicted of murder. Evidence in the British Museum and everything. Meaning your target audience is actually the one least likely to be impressed by your painstakingly, ah, Byzantine plot twists, because they already know how 'process of elimination' works.

Much of the appeal of Jane and the Stillroom Maid, and indeed the whole series, is the way this particular problem is so neatly avoided, or at least mitigated. Here, much play is made of Jane's historical visit into Darbyshire, leading to an imagnined encounter - via that same agent, himself a real if sketchy historical figure named Lord Harold Trowbridge - with the Duke of Devonshire's family. Their reality shadows, enhances and subtly clouds the fictitious issues at hand, generating tension without ever quite demanding suspension of disbelief.
They, as it turns out, are old friends of the tragic family across the moor whose stillroom (basically, apothecary) maid has just been found dead - a family headed by one Charles Danforth, who was clearly written with a certain C.Firth in mind. The Devonshires provide the Gothic romance, the 'original' for Mr. Collins provides the comedy relief, and minutiae re: early-19th-century medicine the fascination that drives the increasingly dark murder mystery. in short, a lovely book for a lazy summer day.
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